If you're bored by the food in Manila, take a drive down south for an unmatched dining experience.
If you have no other reason for the long drive to Batangas City than to sample Hotel Pontefino's cuisine, it would be worth it. Yes, the city has a world class museum and a prominent ancestral home to spice up your tour but, as I told friends when I got back home, GO FOR THE FOOD!
For sheer gustatory experience alone, Pontefino lives up to its moniker as the only deluxe hotel in Batangas. Within minutes of sipping the unexpectedly innovative welcome drink (it isn't your typical “juice” welcome drink, we promise) as you wait to be checked in, we suggest you check out the hotel's restaurant, Robusta.
We discovered this gem south of Metro Manila (brought hours closer by the newly opened Star Tollway) while lunching with Pontefino's energetic foursome: Odette Aguilar, Pops del Rosario, Marga Madera, and Noel Carillo.
The first thing you must know about Robusta is they use big plates; which means big portions compared to the usual hotel fare. Some portions can even be called huge.
The best thing of all is the unbelievable amount of thought and creativity that goes into each dish. From the counterpoint of tastes to the subtle nuances of texture, it truly seems that everything about each dish was designed with care—down to the color of the plate.
Being certified carnivores from Manila, we pounced on the Hickory Ribs (Baby back ribs with fresh green salad) and Boneless Crispy Pata (Deboned crispy pork knuckles with pickled papaya and homemade sauce). Now, listen. If you like meat and order nothing else in your life, try this heart-stopping duo.
Believe us, you will be pleasantly surprised by the hickory ribs' one-of-a-kind taste. The ribs showcase the subtle taste of all Robusta's beef dishes. The spiciness never overpowers and you can enjoy the nuances of Batangas beef. I guess Chef Eddie Mayor, who creates Robusta's Filipino dishes, isn't afraid to use much less seasoning than his Manila counterparts since, after all, everything was delivered just that morning.
And the crispy pata? It's out-of-words divine. If you're staving off a literal divine experience and want something less drop-dead scrumptious, try the melt-in-your-mouth Beef Salpicao. But if your health is truly on thin ice, you can always limit yourself to the appetizers, like the lightly seasoned Hickory Buffalo Wings that leaves a subtly spicy aftertaste, or the Calamares (tender not gummy).
Now if all that city living has left you with a deadened, pizza-craving palate well, guess what? You can actually find pizza in this Batangas hotel! Pontefino has Italian cuisine expert Chef Butch Montoya to whip you up a pizza. And if you want to pretend that pizza is health food, you can order the Bangus Pizza!
Being a Batangas specialty, as Noel points out, Kaldereta is represented in the menu by Beef Kaldereta (Braised beef with potatoes, creamy cheese, root veggies, and olives). Pops notes that the dish is such a popular Batangas must-try that some turo-turos outside offer it too.
Their Maliputo is supplied by Taal Lake. Odette points out that Taal is really in Batangas (not in Tagaytay as many think) and so there is a source of fresh fish just minutes away. Chef Eddie lightly seasons the fish and grills it over lava rock.
I think that's Robusta's secret, aside from the innovation: Daily delivery of beef, chicken, and fish. Batangas Market is their main commissary, Marga says. If it can't be found in Batangas, they can easily source things from Manila. And they have an herb garden inside the Pontefino grounds.
So next time nothing in the city seems to strike your culinary fancy any longer, take the Star Tollway to Batangas City and sit down to a tender, subtly seasoned meal at Hotel Pontefino's Robusta. Oh, and before you leave, try the Crème Brulé trio. It will surprise and make a fan out of even the staunchest creamy-dessert hater—MM
Print ed: 04/09